Spirits from Above: Jon Hendricks on Kurt Elling

Kurt Elling’s unique approach to vocalese appeals to the master of the technique himself, Jon Hendricks — as Edward Randell discovers
One of the most distinctive aspects of Kurt Elling’s work is his development of the style known as vocalese: the art of setting lyrics to recorded instrumental solos. Born when King Pleasure recorded Eddie Jefferson’s lyrics to ‘Moody’s Mood For Love’ (James Moody’s interpretation of the McHugh/Fields standard), vocalese was perhaps taken to its highest peaks of verbal ingenuity by Jon Hendricks. Elling’s lyrical style, with its mixture of erudition and hipster argot, owes a great deal to Hendricks.

Jazzwise asked Hendricks, now 89, about the pretender to his crown, and his verdict was simple: “Kurt Elling is remarkable.” Hendricks first met Elling when giving a university masterclass on jazz. “I asked, ‘does anybody wanna come scat with me?’, and this young guy jumped up, you know, and he came running up the aisle, jumped onto the stage. I thought, who the hell is this guy? And he had all the energy that he needed — and it was all good, there was this big smile on his face — and I said boy, this guy’s something. And so we scatted together, and after that night we were friends, and I began to nurture him and feed him everything I think he needed to have, you know. And he calls me Pops to this day. He’s a sweet guy.

“When he got married I was supposed to be his best man but I was in England, so I don’t know who he got to take my place. But he and his wife have done much as Judith and I did, and they love each other the same way. And his little girl is the cutest little thing like Aria, our baby, was. Life is a very beautiful thing when you look at it through marriage and family.”

The two singers have frequently performed together, notably on the ‘Four Brothers’ tour of 2003-4 with Mark Murphy and Kevin Mahogany. Hendricks was a guest on Elling’s Live In Chicago (2000), duetting with him on the Stan Getz tune ‘Don’t Get Scared’. The song’s vocalese lyric was originally co-written as a dialogue between Jon Hendricks and his mentor King Pleasure. On Live In Chicago Hendricks sings Pleasure’s words and Elling sings Hendricks’ words: a kind of symbolic passing of the baton.

Over the years, Hendricks has sung with the pantheon of jazz titans — Tatum, Bird, Satchmo, Basie — and he is keen to pass on the music’s lore. “The history of jazz is really remarkable: it’s what people don’t know. They know the music and they dig it but they don’t know whence it came emotionally. Because it’s really a religious music. It’s our religious music, the spirituals, played outside the church.”

Both Hendricks and Elling have the church in their blood. Hendricks was the seventh son of a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Toledo, Ohio; Elling’s father was a Lutheran Kappelmeister in Chicago. Both singers, raised on the scriptures, bring a strong sense of spirituality to their lyrics and performance styles. “I think of myself as a conduit from the spirits through me to the people,” Hendricks says. “Artists, I think, are in the category of priesthood, you know?” Still giving masterclasses at 89, Hendricks is enthusiastic about today’s up-and-coming vocalists including Nikki Yanofsky and Sachal Vasandani. “Progress is a strange thing, you know. You can never track it as it’s being made, because you don’t know what is going on that’s going to spark the new interest. You just have to pay attention to who’s out here trying to sing jazz music.”

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This is a related sidebar to Peter Quinn’s March 2011 Jazzwise cover story, Come Running to Me. See also the sidebar, Living Organism: Don Was on working with Kurt Elling.